Much as he did with the western in Dead Man and samurai/gangster movies in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, writer-director Jim Jarmusch has a blast re-contextualizing genre rules we thought we knew by heart with his latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive. In this case, he infiltrates the bloodstream of the "vampire movie" with a deadpan critique of cultural vapidity, and he doesn't spare the imperiously condescending bloodsuckers too drug-addled and self-pitying to make a difference.
The deep connection between the vampire ancients played with serpentine cool by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston can be felt from the opening shots of Only Lovers Left Alive, even though their characters begin on opposite sides of the world. Jarmusch shoots them from overhead in twinned rotating shots, matching their motions with a turntable upon which plays a heroin-laced remix of the Wanda Jackson song "Funnel of Love." It's a perfect mood-setter, at once seductive and stomach-turning, just right for a film that acts as a carpe diem for the undead.
Swinton and Hiddleston's elegantly dusty separated lovers are "sands at the bottom of the hourglass," two of the last vampires in a world where human blood has become increasingly poisonous. As the film opens, both Hiddleston's faded ex-musician Adam and Swinton's brilliant Eve have completely withdrawn from society and exist as shuffling shadows, living only for their next dainty goblet of hopefully untainted blood.
While a vaguely suicidal Adam sleepwalks through a solitary, off-the-grid existence in his bombed-out Detroit neighborhood, Eve lounges in Tangiers and scores "the really good stuff" from her old pal Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) ... yes, the Christopher Marlowe. While Lovers revels in just this sort of 10-percent-too-cuteness, it also possesses the wit and style to make it work.
At one point, we catch a glimpse of a wall of heroes in Adam's mildewed bedroom, and there is the unspoken suggestion that nearly every tortured genius from Buster Keaton to Bo Diddley to Edgar Allen Poe was a vampire or friend-of-vampire. Once again, there is the potential here for an eye-rolling goof, but instead the screen exudes the reverent glee that Jarmusch must have felt while creating his own Sgt. Pepper's album cover.
Adam and Eve have seen literally everything that humans have had to offer, feeding not only on their blood but on their potential for transcendence. It's clear that they have arrived at our lowest tide, with blood becoming more and more dangerous and the threat of an even grander global sickness bearing down. Yet Jarmusch also needles these haughty bloodsuckers. Adam and Eve derisively refer to human non-vampires as "zombies," and yet they both dispassionately drag from fix to fix with a thoughtless duty reminiscent of an actual zombie.
Lovers is hardly the first film to draw a connection between the insatiable blood thirst of the vampire and the dehumanizing urge of drug addiction. But ever the old-school hipster, Jarmusch also locates Adam and Eve's disaffection in a romantic excoriation of intellectual and artistic shallowness.
The metaphoric potential of Detroit as a center of artistic and industrial innovation gone to ruin is obvious but well-used, and Jarmusch and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (I Am Love) emphasize the city's quiet emptiness. Some of the most haunting images involve the pair driving through the nearly abandoned city at night, a tour that includes a stop at Jack White's childhood home.
Both Swinton and Hiddleston are brilliant here. It's certainly great casting, but it also takes restraint to pull a conceit like this back from the edge of smug. In many respects, Swinton's stringy blonde recalls Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, while Hiddleston's scrawny distortion-peddler could be a stand-in for her ex-husband/bandmate Thurston Moore. However, Adam and Eve assume myriad identities throughout the film, often drawing on great literary and stage characters, and their slithery timelessness indicates they could have been the muse for every classic doomed couple, from the original sinners to Sid and Nancy. Their inspirational effect certainly worked on Jarmusch, who delivers his best film in 15 years.